Best laptops: all your buying questions answered
Updated: A few more rumored details about the Surface Pro 4 have leaked out.
Notebooks once thought to be replaced by tablets are more numerous and diverse than ever thanks to Ultrabooks taking off in popularity. 2-in-1 laptop-tablet hybrids are seeing ever increasing releases. Chromebooks may have stolen the show from budget laptops and netbooks, but Windows-based machines are retaking ground with affordable machines like the HP Pavilion x2. Meanwhile, performance gaming notebooks are on the rise and quickly becoming perfectly good replacements for your desktop computers.
With so many options to chose from picking the best laptop for your needs is getting harder. That’s why it’s important to start off by figuring out what you want to do with your new notebook.
Those after a fast boot up time and a lightweight machine to carry might drool over an Ultrabook. Serious gamers will gravitate towards machines tailored to their graphical and processing needs, while those after flexibility might fancy a convertible laptop-tablet hybrid.
It might seem overwhelming at first – what with all of the choices – but we’re here to help you find the best laptop for you. Believe us when we say that there is a perfect laptop out there for you. With this guide, you’ll find not only that, but which is the absolute best.
What does TechRadar recommend?
We’re so glad you asked! Below you’ll find what we think are the absolute best laptops in a number of categories, always up-to-date.
Best Ultrabook: Dell XPS 13 (2015)
Possibly the best laptop on the planet, Dell’s latest is a masterpiece
CPU: Intel Core i5-5200 | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 5500 | RAM: 8GB | Screen: 13.3-inch 3,200 x 1,800 UltraSharp QHD+ touchdisplay | Storage: 256GB SSD | Connectivity: 802.11 AC and Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: 720p | Weight: 2.8 pounds | Dimensions: 11.98 x 7.88 x 0.6 inches
The Dell XPS 13 (2015) isn’t just an astonishingly thin and light laptop, it’s a revolution in design. Fitting a 13.3-inch screen into a 11-inch laptop frame is no small feat, but Dell has pulled off a miracle creating a nearly borderless infinity display. This is also one powerful and long lasting machine, all while coming in at a very affordable starting price. It easily takes the top slot as the best Ultrabook and the best Windows laptop.
Read the full review: Dell XPS 13 (2015)
Best Chromebook: Google Chromebook Pixel 2015
The end all, be all of Chromebooks
CPU: 2.2GHz Intel Core i5-5200U | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 5500 | RAM: 8GB | Screen: 12.85-inch 2,560 x 1,700 IPS touchscreen display | Storage: 32GB SSD | Connectivity: Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260; Bluetooth 4.0 LE | Camera: 720p | Weight: 3.3 pounds | Dimensions: 11.7 x 8.8 x 0.6 inches
As far as performance and screen resolution, nothing comes even close to rivaling Google’s latest Chromebook Pixel. Packing a 2,560 x 1,700 IPS touchscreen, Intel Core i5-5200U CPU and even a USB type-C connector, the Pixel is on the bleeding edge. It’s no surprise how Google labels it as a developer device for programmers building the future of Chrome OS. It has more than a few quirks including a square body and 3:2 screen, but if you’re looking for the very best Chromebook this is it.
Read the full review: Google Chromebook Pixel 2015
Best gaming laptop: Origin EON15-X
A desktop-grade CPU in an unbeatable gaming laptop
CPU: 4GHz Intel Core i7-4790K | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M (8GB GDDR5 RAM), Intel HD Graphics 4600 | RAM: 8GB | Screen: 15.6-inch, 1920 x 1080 LED Backlit Matte Display | Storage: 240GB SSD; 1TB HDD | Connectivity: Intel PRO Wireless AC 7265 + Bluetooth Wireless LAN Combo | Camera: 2MP | Weight: 7.5 pounds | Dimensions: 15.2 x 10.31 x 1.40 inches
In the last few years, gaming laptops have amazing headway in catching up with their desktop gaming counterparts. And so it seems the most logical conclusion of this evolution was to start packing desktop parts inside a gaming laptop. Enter the Origin EON15-X, an unbelievably powerful 15.6-inch laptop rocking out a full-size desktop processor and the highest-end mobile GPU available.
You might think this combo would produce a boat of a laptop, but the EON15-X manages to fit everything into a small, attractive shell. Origin will more than likely update this notebook and the EON17-X with new Skylake processors now that they’ve hit the Desktop scene.
Read the full review: Origin EON15-X
Best 2-in-1 laptop: Microsoft Surface Pro 3
The best laptop-killing tablet
CPU: 1.9GHz Intel Core i5-4300U | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4400 | RAM: 8GB | Screen: 12-inch, 2160 x 1440 multi-touch | Storage: 256GB | Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: Two 5MP webcams | Weight: 1.76 pounds | Dimensions: 7.93 x 11.5 x 0.36 inches
The Surface Pro 3 is Microsoft’s most striking and versatile device to date, and serves as the most convincing poster child for the 2-in-1 hybrid category yet. Through years of refinement, Microsoft’s newest tablet-hybrid has seen some significant upgrades including a bigger, higher-res display and sharper exterior.
Even the smallest little things like the hinge and type cover have been re-engineered to make the Surface Pro 3 a much more stable and usable device. This makes it easy to use whether you’re at a desk, sitting or even lying down.
Read the full review: Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Best student laptop: Asus Zenbook UX305
A most affordable and excellent Ultrabook
CPU: 800MHz Intel Core M 5Y10 | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 5300 | RAM: 8GB | Screen: 13.3-inch FHD 1,920 x 1,080 (matte) | Storage: 256GB SSD | Connectivity: 802.11n Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: 1.2MP | Weight: 2.6 pounds | Dimensions: 12.8 x 8.9 x 0.5 inches
The Asus ZenBook UX305 might look like a MacBook Air from every angle, but it’s a better machine in almost every way. It’s thinner, lighter and even more attractive in some ways with its purple tinged aluminum body. Plus this machine also has a higher-res full HD display with a fanless Intel Core M CPU and 256GB of SSD storage by default. The most amazing thing is you can get all of this for just $699 or £649 (about AU$902), which makes this one of the best deals for a laptop for students around.
Read the full review: Asus Zenbook UX305
Best mobile workstation: Lenovo ThinkPad W550s
This workstation impresses with its long battery life and hi-res screen
CPU: 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-5600U | Graphics: Nvidia Quadro K2100M, Intel HD Graphics 4600 | RAM: 16GB | Screen: 15.5-inch, 2,880 x 1,620 (3K), multi-touch display | Storage: 512GB SSD | Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0; 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi | Camera: value | Weight: 4.92 lbs | Dimensions: 15 x 10.2 x 0.88 inches
The Lenovo ThinkPad W550s is pretty much everything you want a mobile workstation to be with understated aesthetics and a durable design on the outside. At the same time, it offers business users plenty of screen real estate at a sharp resolution, long battery life and strong, reliable performance. Starting at $1,196 (£1,229. AU$1546), the W550s is on the expensive side, but it’s well worth the premium as the best mobile workstation.
Read the full review: Lenovo ThinkPad W550s
Best business laptop: 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina (2015)
The fastest small MacBook Pro yet is a force of nature
CPU: 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 | Graphics: Intel Iris Graphics 6100 | RAM: 8GB | Screen: 13.3-inch IPS, 2,560 x 1,600 pixels | Storage: 128GB SSD | Connectivity: 801.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: FaceTime HD | Weight: 3.48 pounds | Dimensions: 12.35 x 8.62 x 0.71-inches
The 2014 13-inch MacBook Pro was arguably Apple’s best laptop ever, and the 2015 model is somehow even faster and delivers longer battery life. Aside from an from being an annual refresh, the Retina Screen equipped MacBook Pro has also inherited the newly introduced MacBook’s Force Touch trackpad. Apple might not spring up as the leading name for most business applications, but getting Mac is pretty enticing when you stack up the number for freebies including office programs and software upgrades. Check out the rest of our picks for the best business laptops.
Read the full review: 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina (2015)
Best Windows tablet: Dell Venue 11 Pro 7000
A powerful, small tablet that wants to play in the big leagues
Weight: 1.6 pounds | Dimensions: 11.01 x 6.95 x .42 inches | OS: Windows 8.1 | Screen size: 10.8-inch | Resolution: 1,920 X 1,080 | CPU: Intel Core M-5Y71 vPro | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 128GB SSD | Rear camera: 8MP | Front camera: 2MP
Starting at $700 (£437 and AU$800), the Venue Pro 7000 offers a nice balance of performance and portability in the perfect balance you’d look for in the best Windows tablet. The Venue 11 Pro is a versatile Windows slate with enterprise features and it can be readily convert to a laptop or desktop with the right accessory add-ons. As a standalone tablet it’s also a joy to use with its 10-inch, 1080p display plus the onboard Intel Core M processor to keep things light, thin and above all, fanless.
Read the full review: Dell Venue 11 Pro 7000
Laptops on our radar for 2015
You’ve checked out the best laptops out there and now you’re hungry for more. Don’t worry: so are we, which is why we want to give you a glimpse of some of the hottest devices set to launch soon. Whether you’re thinking about picking up a new 2-in-1 to test Windows 10‘s Continuum feature or intend to replace your ageing gaming laptop in a few months’ time, we’re keeping an eye on tomorrow’s technology so that you can start saving those pennies today.
Surface Pro 4
With the Windows 10 launch looming on the horizon, it seems high time that Microsoft finally announce a new Surface Pro tablet. It’s long overdue after all the Surface Pro 3 was first announced back in May 20, 2014.
Given the long lead time between releases we expect Microsoft’s next tablet quite different from the series’ last iteration. Word on the Internet says the Surface Pro 4 could come in 12-inch and 14-inch variants. What’s more, a high-end variant of the tablet will reportedly cost around $1,300 (about £830, AU$1762), boasting a 4K resolution screen and up to 16GB of RAM.
Acer Aspire One Cloudbook 11
Chromebooks better watch out, Acer has introduced a new and extremely affordable Aspire One Cloudbook 11. While this 11-inch Windows 10 notebook only comes with 2Gb of RAM and 32GB, Acer also includes a year-long subscription for Office 365 and 1TB OneDrive online storage. With a starting price of $169 (about £108, AU$232), the Acer Aspire One Cloudbook 11 should give Chromebooks a run for their money.
Intel’s new family of 6th generation Skylake processors are finally here and while only desktop chips have been announced so far, we’re hoping Origin’s EON17-X will be upgraded with the new CPUs soon. Unlike most 17-inch gaming laptops, this big boy comes equipped with a desktop processor alongside a top end mobile graphics card. Despite packing so many components, the EON17-X isn’t a giant brick, measuring only 1.5-inches thick.
Lenovo Yoga 4 Pro
Similar to the Surface Pro 3, we’re expecting Lenovo to pull out all the stop for a new and improved Yoga tablet. The Yoga 3 Pro impressed as one of world’s the thinnest and most premium 2-in-1 laptop. However, this attractive machine was not without some flaws including poor battery life and a disappointing level of performance. We’re hoping the next iteration will be just as wonderful to use as it is to look at.
HP Pavilion x2
HP has introduced a new plastic and fantastic 10.1-inch laptop-tablet hybrid just in time for Windows 10. How quaint! Although the HP Pavilion x2 comes rocking only a 1,280 x 800 resolution display it has plenty to offer on the audio front with Bang & Olufsen-tuned speakers. Amazingly, this small 2-in-1 comes priced at $300 or £250 (about AU$383), given HP’s reputation to break new ground in the affordable Windows laptop space this convertible follow up could be a resounding success.
What else should you consider?
Like any other major purchase, when you’re buying a laptop you want the best for your for your bottom dollar. Unlike picking the right smartphone, choosing a bad laptop is a decision that will follow you for the next few years, at least. With this in mind should really figure out what sort of machine you’re in the market for and luckily we have just the guide to all the gritty details of picking out a shiny new notebook.
Break down the types of laptops for me
Back in the day, laptops were simply set into two groups; ones for leisure and those for word. Today, that line has blurred and split like light passing though a prism. With so many deviations to navigate, let’s start with the basics:
These laptops are essentially devices that must meet certain standards of thinness, lightness, power and size established by processor-maker Intel in an effort to help Windows-loyal notebook vendors compete with Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air.
The result has been some seriously premium machines that have lately been enough to rival Apple’s best. Think of laptops under an inch thin with long battery life and crisp screens, like the Dell XPS 13 (2015) or Asus Zenbook UX305.
Designed almost solely for work, hence the name, these usually beefy laptops have one thing in mind: productivity. Vendors generally equip these units with professional-grade GPUs, like the Nvidia Quadro series or AMD FirePro line.
Other characteristics of workstations include a wider variety of ports and easier access to internals than most consumer-grade notebooks. Not to mention more legacy inputs, like trackpoint cursors, and hardware-level security options, like fingerprint scanners. Examples include the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon and HP ZBook 14.
These laptops run on an all-new operating system created by Google and called Chrome OS. As the name implies, Chromebooks rely almost solely on Google’s homebrewed browser, Chrome. This means that everything from creating word documents to listening to music to printing and beyond is handled with the Chrome browser.
The result is a system that can run with super low-end hardware, which lends Chromebooks to best serve the budget market and education sector. Of course, Chromebooks are best in areas with wireless Internet access, but Google has vastly boosted their offline functionality over the years. Check out the Dell Chromebook 11 and Toshiba Chromebook 2 for a better idea.
2-in-1 laptops (or hybrid laptops)
If you find yourself jumping back and forth between your laptop and tablet, then perhaps the hybrid was made for you. Enabled by Microsoft’s dual-purpose Windows 8, these devices either come as tablets than become more like laptops with accessories, or as laptops that can detach from their keyboards and become tablets in a pinch.
Of course, the idea is to provide one device that successfully serve both use cases, rather than have homes and businesses overwhelmed with gadgets for every scenario. The category has fought an uphill battle toward mainstream acceptance, but by far the most shining example of its potential is Microsoft’s own Surface Pro 3 as well as the HP Spectre x360.
You’ll always know a gaming notebook when you see one: hulking size, pulsating lights, garish paint jobs and whirring fans. But with thin-and-light (and stylish) products like the Razer Blade or MSI GS60 Ghost Pro, even that paradigm is starting to shift.
Generally speaking, gaming laptops are equipped with the latest mobile GPUs from Nvidia and AMD in order to play the latest games close to how well they run on their more sedentary counterparts. (In some cases, they’re enough to outright replace the desktop.) At the same time there are a few machines that go above and beyond such as the desktop CPU-equipped Origin EON15-X. Another case is the Alienware 17, which connects with an external GPU card for more graphical power.
General use laptops
Notebooks of this sort are tough to categorize. They still adhere to the standards established decades ago of what a laptop is, only vastly refined. Given how the market has siloed itself into several distinct categories at this point, this variety of laptops is generally considered "budget" or "mid-range".
Ranging in screen sizes from 11- to 17- inches, there usually aren’t many stand-out characteristics with these mostly-plastic clamshells. These laptops are easy to peg as jacks of all trades: readily able to handle all of your daily tasks, but suffer in more extreme or specifically demanding scenarios. That said, you can get a lot of bang for your back with excellent machines such as the Dell Inspiron 13 7000.
Go big or go, well, small
Across all categories, laptops generally range in size between 11- and 17-inches, with a few outliers in both directions. Your decision on what size laptop to purchase should consider these two factors: screen real estate and weight.
Firstly, your laptop’s screen size directly dictates how much content it can display and the size of it, of course. However, also keep in mind that, as you increase screen size, its resolution should also rise. You should accept nothing lower than 1366 x 768 for laptops between 10 and 13 inches, and nothing lower than 1920 x 1080 for those 17 to 18 inches.
Second: be prepared for each 2-inch bump up in screen size from 11 inches, expect an increase in weight of about a pound, more or less. Of course, there are exceptions, like recent thin-and-light designs that tend to buck this trend. You might want the biggest, sharpest laptop screen around, but are you willing to cart that around in your backpack?
What features should you look for?
Like most consumer technology, laptops often come chock-full of features that you may or may not need. The features listed below are ones that you shouldn’t do without in your next laptop.
USB 3.1: The latest standard in USB data transfer technology offers a lot of advantages including a reversible plug plus the ability to send data faster and even power. However, this new standard has only begun making its way into a limited subset of machines including the new MacBook and Chromebook Pixel.
We suggest that you instead keep an look our for USB 3.0 ports. Be sure that the notebook you buy has at the very least one of these for speedier file transfers between your laptop and, say, a USB 3.0 flash drive.
802.11ac Wi-Fi: For what seems like the longest time, 802.11n was the fastest wireless Internet available. But in the past year, even quicker 802.11ac routers have cropped up, with laptop makers just now catching up. If you plan on streaming or downloading a lot of files and content to your laptop, you should strongly consider this as a selling point.
SD card reader: With the inevitable smartphone camera takeover of the point-and-shoot industry, many notebook vendors are quick to send these media slots to the chopping block. But whether you’re a photography enthusiast or just still fond of your compact shooter, the lack of an SD card reader might be a deal breaker.
Touchscreen: Thanks to Windows 8.1 and Windows 10, touchscreens are becoming an inextricable part of the laptop experience. Though, the ability to tap your screen comes with a bit of added weight and often a bigger bill to pay for it.
Questions to ask before buying
Before you run off and buy the coolest-looking laptop, ask yourself these basic questions. They should help point you toward the notebook that’s right for you.
What will you primarily use the laptop for?
If it’s just the standard web browsing, occasional video streaming, and video calling mom back home, then you might want to consider going the mainstream or budget route. Big into gaming? Then there’s your answer. If you travel quite a bit and need something as thin and light as possible, then consider an Ultrabook. Your primary function with the laptop will almost always send you in the right direction.
How much do looks matter to you?
Laptops come in all shapes, makes, models and sizes – not to mention coats of paint … or plastic … or metal. If you’re the type that scoffs at fellow coffee shop-goers for their ugly computing devices of choice, then you’ll probably want one encased in aluminum, or at least a quality soft-touch plastic. But beware, being pretty comes with a price.
How much are you willing or able to spend?
This is the ultimate barometer for the laptop you’re about to buy, and never should you spend outside of your means. Your disposable income will dictate which laptop category you should spend your shopping time within, and ultimately save you time.
*Bonus tip: Be sure to check both online and brick-and-mortar retailers for the best possible deal on a given laptop. Good luck!
Originally contributed by Dan Grabham and Joe Osborne